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Russia is a powerful nation at the start of the game. With it's enormous land mass, great manpower base and large number of states, Russia can be driven by a good player to the #1 spot in rankings without too much effort. It is considered a great choice as a starting country because you can do a lot of things wrong and still pull it off.
You start off as Slavophile (Protectionism, Interventionist). You also have a choice of Westerniser (Laisez Faire, Free trade) and Panslavic (Protectionist, State Capitalism).
Your industry will go nowhere at the start without a firm kickstart, you will probably need to choose Panslavic and build your main factories in the first few years. Afterwards, a change back to Slavophile will let the capitalists build all the railroads for you, and factories - though you might as well expand as many factories as you can with all that cash that you will start to rake in.
Laisez Faire for the start of the game will just mean closed factories.
You won't have much liberal support for decades, so you won't be performing any political or social reforms for a long time. If you want this long term, you will need to lift your literacy (which you need to do to not lag in tech) and your pluralism.
Starting game... Maximum education to fix your literacy issues. Maximum administration. Your starting efficiency is a woeful 14.4% so you need to fix this. Military - As Russia has big a population, you can keep field more troops than your neighbours (except the United Kingdom) with a 50% setting. If you raise this, then pops will convert to soldiers at the expense of craftsmen.
Tax rates for Middle and Rich to the lowest (preferably zero) possible. You want to encourage Capitalists, Clergy, Clerks and Beuaracrats. Tax rates for peasant scum, Well, if it was just peasants you'd leave them with only enough money to eat so that they have enough strength to keep working and breed, rich peasants are fat and lazy and discuss revolution over a glass of chardonnay none of which is desirable. However, you need to encourage craftsmen, so in spite of your misgivings you will need to keep tax moderate to low.
Tarrifs. Your tarrif efficiency is lousy to start with (due to poor admin efficiency), maybe tarrifs aren't worth the effort so spend your spare money on new factories/armies or raise the money from taxing the peasants.
The academia start with an "Avantgarde Intelligentsia" administration. In simple english, Cultural techs have a 30% bonus and all other techs have a 5% penalty. This can be changed in the politics tab with the decision "restore the academia", but use this bonus to your advantage for a while by researching as many culture techs with research point bonuses that you can to improve your research potential as...
Arguably the only thing Russia doesn't have going for it is it's Literacy rating. In patch 1.2 Literacy became very important to determine your research and as such a starting Russian Empire would do well to focus on building it's Clergy POPs to the 2% mark on most of it's populous states. With low literacy, your craftsmen pops won't promote to clerks - which in turn minimises research and makes factories inneficient.
Maximum education spending is also encouraged to build up the research level. This, along with giving priority to technologies that increase research and education, helps Russia achieve a respectable research rating in the long run.
Freedom of Trade is a very good choice for your first technology. This can be followed by the Experimental Railroad and then by Positivism. With these three technologies out of the way, you can choose between focussing on culture techs to get your research skills up, army techs (particular Army Professionalism) for conquest and industrial techs to finance your empire.
Russia has a huge manpower base. Not as big as China or the UK (India), but still very respectful. By maximizing military spending you'll pretty much assure that you'll have more than enough armies to guard against any possible invasion and go on the offensive.
It is wise to read your adversaries well when choosing your battles. If you go against an uncivilized country, you probably won't have to worry much, but if you face another Great Power in the early game you need to be careful. Stay on the defense and let them come to you. The combat system in Victoria 2 has a nice bias towards the defense that should be exploited. You can use your large land mass against almost any country to force them to lose soldiers to attrition. If you see a 50 brigade army coming towards you, don't be afraid, let it start to control your provinces and call in your old friend "General Winter".
A fairly painless conquest that you may make at the very beginning of the game is Krakow. Use the cavalry army in Warsaw to conquer and occupy it. In the newer patches, however, Krakow is in Austria's sphere, so it may provoke war with them. It is easiest just to get Krakow out of their sphere, then attack.
Territories in central Asia, such as Khiva can be an easy prey, but the British will almost certainly launch a war of containment on you, so be cautious. In the beginning you are better off settling scores with the Ottoman Empire, as historical events tend to trigger Casus Belli on them fairly frequently. Avoid protracted wars, just chip away at them bit by bit. Large wars in which you occupy a lot territory may trigger other empires to launch wars of containment on you and should be avoided until you have a sufficiently large and advanced military.
Alternate starting territorial strategy as Russia...
Acquire territory with big populations from those pesky GP's on your border, preferably keeping a continuous border. It weakens the neighbours, also, while populous, Russia is a flea compared to England and China. So, Giresun and Ankara from Constantinople, East Galicia (1 million people) from Austria if you are allied with Prussia, and Japan's big states (a million people each) - Japan is great as the states only cost 4BB each and beating them is easy enough.
Additionally, if you get "A place in the sun" casus belli against Portugal, take Mocambique from them (and if you haven't, take it in war from them anyway). On statehood, You can build a naval base in Africa which is useful for your longterm colonial ambitions (along with the Seuz Canal) and you will have access to several african states next door with a life rating of 25 - so you can colonise a decent amount of Southern Africa earlier than 1870 (the date that you are allowed to research machine guns) provided that you have Nationalism and Imperialism (which you can get by the late 1850's/1860's).
You will start with 0BB, you might as well get some immediately so that it can diminish with time.
I like to take the state of Kars off the Ottoman empire (10BB) while making them "release puppet" Wallachia and Moldavia for 0.5BB each and "free people" - Serbia. This should push the Ottomans out of Great Power status which can be useful in removing sphere of influence from the Balkan states and Egypt (from which you will eventually get the Suez Canal), it might take one more war (hopefully with acquire state casus belli) in which case taking some of the Ottomans' more populous states will do (Giresun, Ankara).
Long term, the only barrier to a #1 position is the United Kingdom, so if any advantage pops up to destroy their holdings in India, you need to make use of the opportunity - e.g. A war between France (and allies) vs the UK. Also, if you can acquire Chinese states, it is good. There is 1 event that fires in the 1860s to 1880s that can cede some of China's eastern region to you, though a little conquest surely couldn't hurt...
Stay away from Laisez Faire in the early game. Most of your factories will be closed by the capitalists due to the lack of clerks for a long time.
As you have such a technology struggle resulting in slow research for those vital industry related techs and no clerks in the early game, Russia has to be a bit more careful with factory placement to have profitable factories. So, ensure that you have vertical integration between your states/factories as much as possible. e.g. timber/lumber/clipper shipyard or iron/steel/steamers or grain/glass/liquor.
Start off with a cement factory in your high population states (Moscow, Kursk etc). Cheap to build, makes a profit. Progressively build steel mills and timber lodges in the states where you can and build fabric where you have cotton, liquor where there is grain. Then build additional related industry according to the natural advantages - e.g. glass factory where you have a liquor factory, regular/Lusury clothes where you have built a fabric factory etc.
You ought to end up rolling in money, so keep going through and expanding all of those factories.
It is wise to focus your influence points on getting few countries(or even just one) at a time into your Sphere of Influence. Sweden is an obvious first target for Russia, but some other good targets to consider include China and Persia. Note that taking states off of these uncivilized powers will result in them being classified as colonies. The countries that on Russia's eastern border are also good choices, but they should be left for last, after your main targets are inside your Sphere of Influence. Keep in mind that keeping China in your Sphere of Influence might put you at odds with the UK, so make sure you are ready for that.
However, if you are able to bring China within your Sphere you may enact the "The Peeking Conference" and gain Northeastern Manchuria by event. Alternatively if you find yourself at war with the Chinese if you capture Beijing than you may enact the "Burn the Summer Palace" decision, which also allows you to enact "The Peking Convention".
Also Russian has some diplomatic options present in the Balkans. Greece and Serbian start within you Sphere which enables Russian to protect them against foreign attack, but also allow Russia to gain them as allies far easier. Additionally if Russia backs Greece and Serbia in any Balkan wars they fight, or help free states from Austria and Turkey, Russia can gain strong allies and weaken two of its major opponents. It is also worth noting that if militancy with the Ottoman Empire reaches 3 and Russia possesses the tech "Imperialism" Russia may enact a decision to protect eastern Christians for some benefits, although this usually sets off the Crimean War.